“I find I’m so excited I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it is the excitement only a free man can feel, a free man at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain.” – Ellis Boyd ‘Red’ Redding
It started with a kindness.
A slow flat, sustained on the drop into Slaithwaite on a Wednesday morning slackers’ ride. Unnoticed until we rolled away from the Handmade Bakery along the towpath.
I changed the tube, applied the CO2 and bang. None of our other spares had a valve long enough for my rim. The owner of the bakery pointed us up the road, where he said we’d find a woman working out of a motorcycle shop who could fix it.
And we did. When I tried to pay, Jen wouldn’t take any money. I promised I’d come back and pay her for the tube, at least. Plus a new spare.
A few days later, the hot weather had filled me with impetuosity. I could make the ride to pay her back a bit more purposeful and take my new bikepacking setup for its maiden journey.
On Strava I clicked my way around the Yorkshire moors, then into the Derbyshire peak district, across a corner of Staffordshire, then finally down onto the Cheshire plain. Here we go. An adventure. A quest to give back a tenner, test out some kit, and sleep beneath the stars on some lovely, lonely peak.
250km, with 4,000m of up.
“If you’re reading this, you’ve gotten out. And if you’ve come this far, maybe you’re willing to come a little further.”
– Andy Dufresne
The day of, an absolute scorcher. Half of the moors around Greater Manchester are ablaze with – it is rumoured – a bunch of scallies running round trying to light the other half. Helicopters chug through the skies carrying low-hanging sacks of reservoir water.
I hack my way out of Manchester, up through Mossley, Denshaw and then onto the moors. Swooping down into the green, leafy bowl of Slaithwaite, it seems inconceivable that my start point – the semi-industrial, proto-hipster Ancoats neighbourhood of Manchester – and here are separated by just 25 miles (40km).
I post my tenner under the door of Velofondista, not open on Saturdays, but an absolute lifeline for anyone needing a quick repair during the week. Then I have a sandwich at the Handmade Bakery, just a hundred metres down the canal path.
“Some things are best left unsaid. I’d like to think they were singing about something so beautiful it can’t be expressed in words, and it makes your heart ache because of it.” – Ellis Boyd ‘Red’ Redding
Climbing out of the bowl in the hottest part of the day I slog my way to Holmfirth, then go over Holme Moss – followed up immediately with the Snake Pass out of Glossop. Two big ascents that rightly have a place in British cycling folklore. Soon I am hurtling down the long, shallower side of the Snake and into the Hope Valley, home of sunken villages and mighty climbs.
I ride up and over the village of Abney from Hathersage, a shaded climb that opens out at the official Lancashire & Derbyshire Gliding Club. I only recently learned about this road when it won a Twitter poll about the best climbs in the Hope Valley. I can see why it won, beating out the likes of Winnats Pass and Mam Nick in the process. Unlike the latter two, it is not excruciatingly steep, but it has views to equal them. Views you can actually enjoy while you’re climbing.
Stopping at the co-op in Tideswell to get some food, I settle on my camping staple of a tin of baked beans with sausages and a packet of Eccles cakes. Then I start looking for a camp spot in earnest.
Nobody ever taught me where you’re actually allowed to wild camp – but my general assumption is ‘nowhere in England, some places in Scotland, and nobody gives a hoot in Europe’.
Being in England, my spot needed to be secluded enough that I wouldn’t be spotted by some irate landowner, but picturesque enough for a few good photos and (hopefully) a glorious sunrise.
In the end, after a climb to Cowdale that almost broke me, I found my way to a hillside with a public bridleway on a hill beside a quarry to the south of Buxton. I ate my tin of beans and watched the last few dog-walkers disappear back to their homes before hunkering down for the night.
I woke once in the night at 3am; a conspiracy between my bladder and some sixth sense for the wondrous beauty of nature. I clambered out of my bivvy bag and – standing up to peer over the dry stone wall I’d camped beside – was confronted with a spectacular orange-gold corona of light to the east. I fumbled for a photo with my phone, but the snap that I took can’t possibly do it justice. You’ll just have to imagine.
“The world went and got itself in a big damn hurry.” – Brooks Hatlen
In the morning, the world that had been golden and lustrous in the last hours of light the day before was grey and cold. Like the colours had run out under a prolonged succession of severe hot laundry cycles.
Thankfully, it quickly warmed up. Looming like a mirage in a Warner Brothers cartoon, I spotted a cafe that – despite it being Sunday morning in rural England – appeared to be open. I sped up to approach and yes, the door was indeed propped ajar. One large plate of fried things later and I was refuelled and ready to go again.
Up the Cat and Fiddle climb (the ‘wrong’ way, if you’re asking), down into Macclesfield, then over Alderley Edge, through Tatton Park, and a last grim slog through the urban donut of dismay that rings any major city. That last hour was a real grind. I stumbled into a supermarket to buy a coke then hunkered in the shade for some minutes.
“I know what you think [rehabilitated] means, sonny. To me, it’s just a made-up word. A politician’s word, so that young fellas like yourself can wear a suit and a tie and have a job. What do you really want to know?”– Ellis Boyd ‘Red’ Redding
Is bikepacking a bullshit word, made up so marketing men can keep having a job? Maybe. Did people do weird stuff like ride their bikes then sleep in fields for fun before the advent of the bikepacking ‘scene’. For sure. Did I, personally? No. For me, the coolness of bikepacking, ultra racing, the Transcontinental, were the catalysts – the things that inspired me.
Was my micro-adventure really that epic, in the grand scheme? Nope. But for one weekend in summer it felt like something real.
Follow the link to see the Strava file from Tom’s ride.